Developers of a proposed Ronkonkoma sports arena said Tuesday they have reduced the venue’s seating by more than half of its initial 17,500 capacity and are focused on attracting a minor league hockey team for the site.
Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle now plans to build a 7,500-seat arena and 6,000-seat soccer stadium. In a news release Tuesday, the developers said they hoped to bring a team from the American Hockey League to Ronkonkoma as part of a $1.1 billion development that also would include offices, a convention center and medical facilities.
Last year the company pitched the 17,500-seat arena plan they said could accommodate an NHL franchise. The firm beat out three other developers for the right to develop a 40-acre tract between Long Island MacArthur Airport and the Ronkonkoma Long Island Rail Road station. Both the Islanders and NHL officials said last year they had no interest in the team playing there.
In an interview, JLL Vice Chairman Derek Trulson said a smaller arena serving a 25-mile radius around Ronkonkoma would work better than an NHL-sized venue.
“We think that size arena works well and fits the minor league profile,” Trulson said. “There is a lot of value in that size as it pertains to entertainment … around Ronkonkoma. We’re also mindful of the other venues that are on or near Long Island from … [Madison Square Garden] all the way out."
Trulson said 7,500 seats “is a perfect fit. It has multipurpose use written all over it. It works for the entertainment that we think works out there. It’s not MSG. We’re not in the middle of the city. We spent a lot of time analyzing what could work there. We would love to see something more grand if it ever came about but that’s not there. We went through that process at the very beginning when we proposed a larger arena and there’s no team right now. It fits the market. That’s the key.”
JLL and a three-member investment team led by banker Ray Bartoszek last year proposed a sprawling complex of commercial and retail development that would include an arena, medical facilities and a conference-convention center just north of the airport.
The proposal had been met with skepticism from some local officials who questioned whether Suffolk County could support a large arena and a major league sports franchise. Some members of the Suffolk Legislature said they had not been apprised of the project’s scale before County Executive Steve Bellone announced the arena proposal had been accepted.
In an email, Bellone spokesman Jason Elan said of JLL's latest proposal: “We look forward to reviewing their plans once they are formally submitted to the county.”
The Suffolk Legislature's Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said he was pleased JLL had adjusted its plans.
“I’d like to see what the final proposal is, but I’m glad to see that they’re responding to what they feel the interest is, or what the market is,” he said.
County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. last year launched an audit to investigate how JLL was selected. Kennedy announced the audit after Newsday reported in September that Bartoszek's group cited a defunct Seattle sports arena as a success story to Suffolk officials, raising questions about their qualifications.
Trulson said Tuesday that Bartoszek no longer was involved with the project and the banker's group preferred a larger arena.
“They had a vision that was consistent with where we started," Trulson said. "We believe it’s a phenomenal piece of real estate that warrants a proper development program, and that’s not where their head was."
Bartoszek, reached on his cellphone, referred a request for comment to his partner Ben Bouma, who did not return a voicemail seeking comment.
Trulson said they are not seeking new investors because plans are fluid.
“We have purposely not gone out and tried to solicit an answer on the investors because we want more of the pieces to come together,” he said.
Islip Town spokeswoman Caroline Smith said town officials have had no contact with JLL and were not involved in the firm’s decision to pitch a smaller arena.
“We didn’t influence the decision,” she said.
JLL revealed its plan to downsize the project in a news release that also announced that former Islanders and Rangers star Pat LaFontaine will join the project and “develop grassroots athletic programs including a possible American Hockey League team."
Trulson said the development group wants "to make sure the real estate works first" before LaFontaine meets with leagues and teams.
When LaFontaine does sit down with them, the veteran of 15 NHL seasons — including eight with the Islanders — will bring credibility in negotiations to bring a team to Ronkonkoma, Trulson said.
LaFontaine, who lives in Cold Spring Harbor, also will try to lure women's hockey and other sports leagues, including soccer and lacrosse, to the arena and an adjacent outdoor athletic field added to the proposal.
“I look at this as a game changer for Long Island because of the location and because of what we can do with growing sports, especially among our youth,” Lafontaine said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.